Megan McArdle has just returned from a time-machine visit to the year 2000, and she's worried about a new scourge called Napster:
People have been pirating intellectual property for centuries, but it used to be a time-consuming way to generate markedly inferior copies. These days, high-quality copies are effortless.
Possibly she met with Jack Valenti when she was there, because she's returned with his trademark pessimism about the ability of markets to find common ground between buyers and sellers.
Maybe it’s time to admit that we may never find a way to reconcile consumers who want free entertainment with creators who want to get paid.
Such a narrow defeatism! Along similar lines, can't we also admit that we may never find a way to reconcile workers who want high wages with employers who'd prefer low? Where's the Atlantic column complaining about this?
Or maybe McArdle is just talking her book?
Can the market evolve fast enough to keep up with the expectations, and predations, of Generation Free? Even if the music industry manages, what about all the other businesses that depend on intellectual property—including (gulp) my own?
"Sure, the internet has brought to the fingertips of billions of people an unimaginable wealth of information, a cosmic jukebox, texts and videos that otherwise might have been lost to the ages, a free encyclopedia, tool-assisted speedruns of old Nintendo games, and the greatest marketplace the world has ever seen, but won't someone please think of the Atlantic bloggers?"
I wonder if the loom-smashers wrote similar columns.
But the broader music industry, like other entertainment fields, has always worked on a tournament model: a lot of starving artists hoping to be among the few who make it big. What happens to the supply of willing musicians when the prize is an endless slog through medium-size concerts at \$25 a head?
Always? Really? I suspect Mick Jagger might disagree, although he probably doesn't know as much about the music business as McArdle does.
Because the band ("Atlanta's Best Party Band!") that my sister hired to play her wedding certainly wasn't starving, and they didn't seem to have their sights set any higher than being Atlanta's Best Party Band. My friend who put out a Facebook message to recruit for her would-be lounge band doesn't dream of anything more than playing a few shows, nor does another friend whose cover band plays at Rock Bottom Brewery once a month. My other sister writes songs and puts them on her website with no motivation other than entertaining people who download them.
Quite possibly most musicians hope to make it rich. Almost everyone hopes to make it rich. But that doesn't mean that's the only thing that motivates them, and it certainly doesn't mean they'll quit what they're doing if their lottery ticket up and vanishes.
As for the publishing industry, a year is a long stretch to spend typing without some prospect of financial return.
Isn't it? Well, here's a subject I happen to know something about, because a year is just about how much time I spent writing Your Religion Is False. Of course, the whole time I had "prospects" of financial return, but I certainly didn't have any guarantees. No one promised me I'd make a single dollar, and no one promised me I'd sell a single copy. That's why I didn't quit my day job. (Until much later, when I quit my day job.)
Most musicians have day jobs. Most writers have day jobs. Most actors have day jobs. McArdle is astoundingly fortunate that someone pays her a salary (I assume) simply to write blog posts all day. But this makes her a fantastic outlier.
All artists want to get paid for their art. I want to get paid for my art. And of course I'd rather someone pay me for a copy of my book than read it for free. But if the choice is between "someone reading it for free" and "someone not reading it at all," I'll take the former 100 times out of 100. And if the choice is between "lots of people reading it for free" and "no one reading it at all," it's a complete no-brainer.
For without the internet and what it enables, I never could have written Your Religion Is False. I never could have published it, I never could have effectively promoted it, and I never could have sold the number of copies that I have. I never could have quit my job to try to make a living as a writer, and the world would never get to enjoy the multiple (awesome) books that I'm working on.
Perhaps the internet hurts the business model for McArdle's creative output. But at the same time, it makes possible the business model for mine, and for countless others like me. Shouldn't someone who calls herself "Jane Galt" have a little more appreciation for the essential-to-capitalism process of creative destruction?